Original Investigation

Human Genetics

, Volume 97, Issue 3, pp 319-323

First online:

The heritability of human longevity: A population-based study of 2872 Danish twin pairs born 1870–1900

  • Anne Maria HerskindAffiliated withCentre for Health and Social Policy, Institute of Community Health, Odense University
  • , Matthew McGueAffiliated withCentre for Twin and Adoption Studies, Department of Psychology, University of Minnesota
  • , Niels V. HolmAffiliated withGenetic Epidemiologic Research Unit, Odense University
  • , Thorkild I. A. SørensenAffiliated withDanish Epidemiology Science Centre at the Institute of Preventive Medicine, University of Copenhagen
  • , Bent HarvaldAffiliated withOdense University Medical School
  • , James W. VaupelAffiliated withCentre for Health and Social Policy, Institute of Community Health, Odense University

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The aim of this study was to explore, in a large and non-censored twin cohort, the nature (i.e., additive versus non-additive) and magnitude (i.e., heritability) of genetic influences on inter-individual differences in human longevity. The sample comprised all identified and traced non-emigrant like-sex twin pairs born in Denmark during the period 1870–1900 with a zygosity diagnosis and both members of the pairs surviving the age of 15 years. A total of 2872 pairs were included. Age at death was obtained from the Danish Central Person Register, the Danish Cause-of-Death Register and various other registers. The sample was almost non-censored on the date of the last follow-up (May 1, 1994), all but 0.6% had died, leaving a total of 2872 pairs for analysis. Proportions of variance attributable to genetic and environmental factors were assessed from variance-covariance matrices using the structural equation model approach. The most parsimonious explanation of the data was provided by a model that included genetic dominance (non-additive genetic effects caused by interaction within gene loci) and non-shared environmental factors (environmental factors that are individual-specific and not shared in a family). The heritability of longevity was estimated to be 0.26 for males and 0.23 for females. The small sex-difference was caused by a greater impact of non-shared environmental factors in the females. Heritability was found to be constant over the three 10-year birth cohorts included. Thus, longevity seems to be only moderately heritable. The nature of genetic influences on longevity is probably non-additive and environmental influences non-shared. There is no evidence for an impact of shared (family) environment.